Monday, 14 November 2011

Things I discovered at Discover Dogs

Early on Saturday morning I set out to get the train from Leicester to London, heading for Earl’s Court and the annual dog-fest that is Discover Dogs. ‘But wait,’ I hear you say, ‘surely you discovered dogs many years ago!’ And of course you’d be right, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that there’s always more to find out.

One train journey complete with infant sickness in the aisle next to my seat later, and I was saying hello to a beautiful Irish Terrier who works as a Pets as Therapy (PAT Dog), while learning all about the great work of the PAT scheme.

My immediate mission was to head for the EzyDog stand and buy a replacement star flyer for Billy. It’s by far his favourite toy, but that didn’t stop him losing his on the park last week. It’s also very convenient for me because it’s a Frisbee that you can fold up and put in your pocket, leaving your hands free to handle your three dogs.

However, at an event like Discover Dogs there’s just so much to see, and it was only after spending some time at the PAT, Wildlife Trusts and various other stands that I made it to EzyDog – only to find out that the star flyer was the one thing they hadn’t brought with them. This was only a minor disappointment and a quick search of the other stands brought the discovery of a flexible rubber Frisbee that can roll up to fit into a pocket. Not so hard-wearing as the EzyDog star flyer, perhaps, but a good stopgap until I was able to buy a replacement online.

Fun and games with the assistance dogs in training
Education is the name of the game at Discover Dogs. Not only can you meet and learn about different breeds, but there were also seminars on everything from Reiki to puppy farming to ‘Why dogs are good for us’ as well as some great demonstrations for children about how to be safe around dogs.

Mary shows us how it's done
I stopped by the main arena to see Mary Ray demonstrating some trick training with her dogs. Mary is perhaps most famous for her ‘Dancing with Dogs’ routines but she is quite possibly the UK’s best canine obedience trainer too. Her dog Levi was in the recent Will Young video which, whether or not you like the song, is a pleasure to watch. Mary told us some great stories about the making of that video.
Inspired by Mary’s expertise I headed for her stand, where I found the best Whippet-proof treat bag I’ve ever come across. Whippets know that they have long, thin noses and that they can slip them into pretty much any pocket or bag to nick a treat. Billy is especially good at this but Charlie gives it a good go too. Not only is my new treat bag big enough to hold enough treats for a three-dog walk, it also has a spring-loaded opening. You can leave it wide open or snap it shut so not even the most determined Whippet can slip his nose in. As if that wasn’t enough, the inner bag can be detached and washed, and if it wears out you can buy a replacement inner without having to buy a whole new bag. ‘Mary,’ I thought, ‘you really do understand the needs of a dog-owner like me.’

In between my mini shopping sprees, I went to admire all the different breeds of dog that were there (including several stops with the Whippets). With so many British breeds now at risk of dying out, it was great to see them represented here and to get to know more about them. The Glen of Imaal Terrier and the Smooth Fox Terrier were especially delightful and the Dandie Dinmont Terrier never stopped wagging his tail at passers-by.

I always make sure I say hello to Southern Lurcher Rescue when they’re at an event. Not only do they do valuable work in rescuing and rehoming Lurchers in need, but they’re also a really friendly bunch who are great to chat to. I hugged a lurcher, picked up tips on holidays where more than three dogs are allowed, and I now know where to get some beautiful hand-made hound collars at a very reasonable price. Talking of holidays, I also made sure I stopped by the Dog Friendly stand. I’ve written a few articles for their Out & About magazine and it was great to say hello to the team.

At Discover Dogs the dogs really are the stars, and I indulged my dog-geekdom with a bit of celebrity spotting. I was very excited to see Ripley, the face of the recent Pedigree Adoption Drive campaign, and Sykes from Midsomer Murders (AKA Harvey from the Thinkbox ‘Every home needs a Harvey’ advert), who were lending their support to the Kennel Club Assured Breeders scheme.

A bit of fun dog-racing and some flyball-watching later, and it was time to head off home laden with my various purchases and free samples. I still don’t feel that I’ve seen everything there is to see at Discover Dogs and I’m already looking forward to next year’s event.

And as an added bonus, I met up with my fellow dog-walkers on the park this morning and was presented with... Billy’s star flyer! His friend Lola the Springer Spaniel had found it on Saturday, days after he’d lost it. So all’s well that ends well. It was a very happy reunion for Billy and he let Lola play with it too. We kept a very close eye on it this time though!

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Happy Birthday Charlie Whippet!

My lovely Charlie the Whippet is 13 years old today. He's a very special dog so I've dug out some photos to tell you a bit about him.

Charlie came from a very nice lady in Newark, who I contacted after Zephyr, my previous Whippet, had died. She was a responsible breeder who gave me a proper (though kindly) grilling to make sure I was a suitable whippet owner. After that we had a bit of a wait before a litter of puppies arrived. By the time they did, I’d moved to Reading to do my PhD and I brought Charlie home by train from Newark at the end of December 1998. He coped very well with the journey and got lots of admiring looks on the Tube.

Charlie's other name is Silkstone True North, but I called him Charlie because when he was chewing a toy, his facial expressions reminded me of Charlie Chaplin. When Charlie was young he had a dark blue face and white paws. Here he is at three months old with my Irish Wolfhound crossbreed, Murphy. Charlie thought Murphy was the best thing he’d ever seen. When he wasn’t play-fighting with him, he was sleeping on him (Murphy was like a big soft rug). Murphy was very patient about it all.

Charlie was the greediest puppy in his litter and he was a chunky pup, full of mischief and quite difficult to train in recall. We had a few hairy moments, such as him running into the road and standing in front of a bus – I swear he was laughing at me too – but we got there in the end when Murphy and I taught him that retrieving a Kong so it could be thrown again was one of the most important things in life. As Charlie grew up he became much more reliable, and since then I’ve always taken my dogs to puppy training classes so we can get the basics in place among other dogs in a secure environment.

When he was younger, Charlie liked to run until he dropped. But one of his key skills has always been chilling out. It’s a quality I’ve always admired in him and I’ve tried to learn from it. I kept this photo on my desk when I had a stressful job and it helped to remind me that Whippets know what's important in life.

Charlie’s blue face turned a distinguished grey when he was a couple of years old. I think that like people, some dogs go grey early on while others don’t. A lot of people think Charlie is much younger than he is because they never knew him with his blue face. He’s also lost his white socks as the hair on his fawn legs has turned white. Most people don’t know about the socks, either.

When Murphy died in 2003, I let Charlie say goodbye to him. He sniffed Murphy's body before embracing life as an only dog. He did miss Murphy, but he didn’t seem to mind being the only dog apart from the fact that he hated being left alone with no canine company. In the end, it was only a few months before Fargo joined us. You wouldn't believe from looking at him now, but Fargo was a very small puppy. He loved Charlie as soon as he saw him, but Charlie really couldn’t be bothered with Fargo for a couple of weeks because he didn’t think he was big enough to play with. That soon changed though and they became very firm friends.

I took Charlie to agility classes for a while and he really enjoyed them. He still enjoys jumping over logs and stuff when we’re out for a walk. All the trainers at the class said it was amazing how much he kept eye contact with me. He’s like that. He likes to pretend he’s really independent but actually he wants me to be nearby. He likes us to work as a team.

We pottered along happily for a long time, going on holidays to Wales and stuff like that. When we moved to a bigger house we were joined by Billy the Whippet, who was 13 weeks old. Charlie pretends that he can just about tolerate Billy, but they love each other really. They enjoy wrestling each other and you’ll often find them curled up together too.

Then in summer 2010 – disaster! Charlie lost the use of all his legs due to a compressed spinal cord and ruptured disc. He had the tops taken off some vertebrae in his neck and had to learn to walk again. He didn’t like his stay in the vet hospital and he went on hunger strike. He lost a lot of weight and looked really ill. It took weeks to get him standing up again, but gradually we got him walking even though he had a weak left foreleg which he dragged on the ground a bit.

Now, though, Charlie is transformed. Fargo had a cruciate ligament operation this summer and had to go to physiotherapy and hydrotherapy. I mentioned Charlie and the physiotherapist suggested I brought him along. It turns out that he’d been compensating with his strong legs and letting his weak legs get even weaker.

After Charlie's very first swim in the hydrotherapy pool he was like a different dog and now, a couple of months later, he’s much stronger. He picks up his left foreleg nicely and he really enjoys his walks. I get really excited when I see him walking so well and he’s more confident too. He even starts games with other dogs on the park! He can get a bit stiff and we think he might have some arthritis in his lower back, but he's healthy, happy and enthusiastic (especially about treats). He leaves most of the running to Billy now, but he has been known to break into a sprint, especially when he sees one of his friends on the park. That's another reason that people think he’s much younger than he is.

Today, Charlie will have a swim in the hydrotherapy pool before spending the rest of his birthday chilling out at home. He’ll get lots of treats and then, as it’s Firework Night, we’ll settle down to watch a film. He probably won’t see the film as he’s never been interested in TV and anyway and he’ll be curled up under a blanket on the settee. But it will help to make sure he doesn't get worried by any firework noises from outside. Whatever he does, I know he'll enjoy his birthday and I hope he'll have many happy returns.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Things that go bang...

What with Bonfire Night, New Year celebrations and any number of other reasons for bangs and flashes, this time of year is a nightmare for many dog owners. In a perfect world I’d like to see fireworks restricted to organised events. But fireworks must make a lot of money for the people who sell them and I suspect that restrictions are unlikely to be enforced any time soon. The problem is that we dog-obsessives have to share the world with people who aren’t really bothered about them – in fact, they might like fireworks more than they do dogs, or they might simply not know about the effect fireworks can have. We have to find a way to live together, and that means helping our canine friends to cope with the annual season of loud noises and flashing lights.

It doesn’t help that for each of us and for our dogs, fireworks can bring very different experiences. Whether it’s due to poor socialisation as a puppy or a negative experience in adult life, dogs can grow fearful of the loud noises made by fireworks, and if their fear isn’t addressed it can get worse. As with people, some dogs are naturally more nervous than others, and despite the fact that the firework season seems to bet longer every year, this isn’t a constant source of noise that a dog can gradually get used to. I’ve also found that a dog who had no problem with last year’s fireworks can still be taken by surprise when the bangs begin again after a peaceful, firework-free spring and summer.

Unfortunately, one of the most effective ways to ensure a happy dog – plenty of exercise – isn’t always an option for helping to keep them calm at this time of year. As soon as darkness starts to fall the fireworks come out, and whether or not my dogs are afraid of fireworks when they’re in the house, I don’t want them coming across one while out for a walk. So at this time of year the evening walk is a cautious affair. Early morning is the best bet for a good walk, but not for all dogs. Even at this time of day I’ve heard the odd firework being let off, and I’ve seen some dogs reacting fearfully to the noises.

Having owned fearful dogs in the past I know how easily fear can build into panic, and how distressing firework fear can be for both humans and dogs. It can be difficult to know what to do. Many of us will have been told not to respond to our dogs’ fear reactions and to carry on as if there is nothing to be scared of. But if you’re faced with a terrified dog and with the odd loud bang making you jump out of your own skin, how can you pretend to your dog – who is a master at reading body language – that nothing is wrong? Common sense comes in the form of a very helpful factsheet from Dogs Trust, which includes advice on how to help puppies grow accustomed to the noises they’ll hear as well as tips on dealing with a dog that has grown up to fear the fireworks.

Diffusing the firework fear
I know from my own experience that, as the Dogs Trust advises, acting as if nothing is amiss can work wonders if the dog has only recently begun to react to fireworks. My own dogs are pretty calm when the fireworks are going off, but they can be taken by surprise now and again and I’ve found that as long as I’m calm around them they will settle down again. If the noises are particularly bothersome to them, I’ll distract their attention with a game or a bit of reward-based training so they stop worrying about the noises outside. That’s fine for dogs like mine because they’re more surprised than frightened by the noises and I’m able to direct their behaviour and stop their surprise from escalating into fear.

However, many dogs have a serious fear of fireworks, and I’m really glad to see that Dogs Trust advises owners to give those dogs attention if they need it. We care so much for our dogs, who wouldn’t want to comfort them when they’re frightened? As the factsheet notes, dogs who are very afraid will be too scared to see such interaction as a reward so, contrary to some advice I’ve had in the past, giving the dog attention will provide some comfort, rather than reinforcing fearful behaviour. A key point here is not to force the dog out into the open if that’s not where it wants to be. The Dogs Trust advises that it’s essential to “try to find out what helps [the dog] to cope and be sure to let him do this – e.g. letting him hide under the table – don’t try to coax him out, if this is where he feels safest – he’ll come out when he’s ready and then you can praise him.”

Advice such as drawing the curtains and turning up the volume on the TV hits the spot for me – that’s what we always do in my house on bonfire night and I’ve found it works a treat. Having made sure the dogs have been outside to go to the loo before it gets dark, we’ll be settling down to watch a film with loud noises in it as the dogs don’t seem to mind if the noises come from the TV. (Fargo particularly recommends the second film in the Lord of the Rings trilogy – I don’t know why, but he loves it!)

I hadn’t come across a couple of the other tips in the factsheet, although these make perfect sense to me now I’ve read them. They include:
·         Keeping internal doors open, as closing them can make the dog feel trapped
·         Feeding a stodgy high-carbohydrate meal in the late afternoon, such as well-cooked white rice, pasta or mashed potato with cooked chicken, turkey or white fish, as this can help to make the dog feel more calm and sleepy in the evening.

As many of us know from experience, even these measures aren’t enough to reassure some dogs and a longer-term approach may be needed. There is a growing range of options to help ease the anxiety of firework season – CDs to help accustom pets to loud noises, dog-appeasing pheromone (DAP) diffusers, calming herbal remedies or the Thundershirt to name but a few. Different approaches might work for different dogs and if you’re using a product like DAP or a noise CD, you need to begin some time before the fireworks start. If your dog tends to get very frightened it's important to discuss the options with your vet or a qualified dog trainer to find the best approach.

There is no 'quick fix' for a fearful dog, but I think that with concerted effort it is possible to help make this time of year less stressful for our canine friends. The Dogs Trust factsheet offers some great advice which my own experience tells me is worth listening to. I wish I'd known these techniques years ago when my first Whippet was shivering with fear as the fireworks exploded overhead, but at least I've been able to apply some of them with my current three dogs, who are able to be pretty laid back about Bonfire Night. I hope the information is useful to you, and that you and your dogs have a calm and relatively peaceful firework season.

** Charlie Whippet (in the photo) isn't actually afraid of fireworks, which is good because his birthday is on 5 November!

Monday, 31 October 2011

A picture speaks a thousand woofs

This brilliant picture was done for me by the wonderfully talented Elinor Geller. I discovered Elinor’s work on Twitter, after @BillyWhippet (not my Billy Whippet, a different one) posted one of her pictures.

The prospect of owning an original piece of art featuring my lovely dogs was impossible to resist, so I got in touch straight away. I sent Elinor some photos of the boys along with a description of each one’s character and, after I had approved a preliminary sketch, she completed the picture in ink and watercolour.

Elinor’s love of animals comes through in her art, and she is expert at capturing the personalities, as well as the looks of her subjects. Anyone who knows Charlie, Fargo and Billy will recognise them from their expressions in this picture. I told Elinor about Billy’s tendency to chase frogs and I was delighted to see that not only did she include one in the picture, but that the expressions of both Billy and the frog tell the story of their relationship. I'm so chuffed with this picture I'm telling everyone about it.

Elinor is now booked up for the rest of this year but her pictures are well worth the wait and she can provide gift vouchers for use next year if you want to give someone an extra special Christmas gift. You can see more of Elinor’s brilliant works of art on her Facebook page and she also sells some lovely prints and cards on her website.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Fargo’s food review: Wagg Tasty Bones

Hello, Fargo here. As you may expect from a bouncy Labradoodle like me, I’m very fond of my treats and recently, I’ve been trying out Wagg Tasty Bones. To be fair, it’s not just me. I’ve had to share them with Charlie and Billy the Whippets, but they’ve nominated me as the spokesperson for this review.

So, what are Wagg Tasty Bones? Well, they’re meaty bone-shaped treats with chicken and liver, two of our favourite flavours here at HoundHead Towers. There are several other things I like about them too.

The treats are quite small, so they can come out on walks with us and we can have a few of them without worrying about eating too much. But they’re also chunky enough to bite into. As I have a big mouth full of teeth, this is quite important as it gives me a sense of satisfaction in a treat and then I don’t try to eat them all straight away.

Between you and me, I wish that the Whippets didn’t like the treats so I wouldn’t have to share them. But Charlie is especially fond of liver flavour and Billy likes to take his time over a treat with some substance, and they both tell me that Tasty Bones are spot-on. As for me, I found the treats to be especially worthwhile after a good swim – I did 12 minutes in the hydrotherapy pool on Saturday and I really enjoyed my swim, but it did leave me feeling a bit hungry and a couple of Tasty Bones really did the trick without being too heavy on my tummy.

I’m also told that, like all Wagg treats and dog food, Tasty Bones have no artificial colours or flavours and no added sugar. But they do have added vitamins and minerals. My focus is mainly on the immediate eating experience, but I understand this stuff is important to the humans as it helps to make sure us dogs stay healthy while enjoying lots of lovely treats.

Even though I have to share the treats I'm hoping there will be no shortage of them. A 150 gram bag of Tasty Bones only costs about £1 so I hope we’ll get lots more of them in the future. They do make us wag!

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Positive results from a week of walking

Dog-walking has provided a heart-warming theme to the past week. 

I’m so glad to see that, since last Monday, walking Ripley across the web has raised nearly £40,000 for the Pedigree Adoption Drive. It’s been great to be involved with this campaign over the past week and to see so much money being raised to help the UK’s stray and abandoned dogs.

As if to celebrate the fact, yesterday the physiotherapist upgraded Fargo's exercise to two 50-minute walks per day, with some extra massage from me to make sure his legs don't stiffen up. Fargo really enjoys his swims in the hydrotherapy pool and it's doing him the world of good.

Fargo enjoys a good swim
Charlie seems to have a bit of a sore back, possibly because of some degeneration in his spine (he is nearly 13 after all). It's not so bad though. Charlie didn't have a swim yesterday and he's still on 40-minute walks with a heat pack applied to his back a couple of times a day, and at least I'm aware of the issues. I'll monitor him over the next week, and then we can consider whether he needs some anti-inflammatory medicine. The main thing is that Charlie's walking is still improving and he's really enjoying his walks.

So, it's generally positive news on the walking front, but there's still plenty more to do. I'm off to take Ripley for another virtual walk and I hope you'll take her out too. Every time you do, you'll unlock another £1 donation towards the total - just click on the Pedigree Adoption Drive logo below to get started.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

A walk in the park

Early in the morning each day I’m lucky enough to speak to some amazing people. Like me, they’re out walking their dogs, and as we make our way around the park we stop to chat and let our dogs play together. A walk in the park shows me many facets of dog-ownership. Some are positive, some not so. But all of them emphasise the importance of responsible dog ownership.

Among the park regulars are many owners of rescue dogs with heart-warming tales to tell. A beautiful sleek Rottweiler ran past me the other day, with a lovely long waggy tail. I spoke to his owner and she told me she’d got him from the RSPCA in May. He’d arrived at the kennels horribly underweight and, although he had put on some weight in the rehoming centre, he was still thin and lacking muscle when the lady took him home. Some six months later, he has been transformed into a healthy, well-muscled and very well-behaved dog. He’s four years old and, although the lady has only had him since May, he’s so very much her dog that you’d swear she’d owned him since he was a pup.

Another lady has a history of taking on ‘difficult’ dogs that, under her care, become well socialised angels. She tells me that she’s only ever taken one dog from a rehoming centre because the rest have been given to her by people who can’t cope with them. Sadly, the dog that she’d rehomed from rescue died earlier this week when it was found that he had inoperable gastric tumours. But his life story is inspiring. He was four years old when the lady took him on and he was thought to have vicious tendencies that meant he had to be muzzled on walks. But all that changed in his new life and you couldn’t have met a calmer, happier, more good-natured dog. He didn’t need muzzling at all, he appeared to glow with health and at 12 years old, he looked like a much younger dog. His owner had the comfort that, as she says, his good life was twice as long as the bad life he had before it. His canine companion is missing him, and I’m glad that the lady is going to give a home to another rescue dog in the near future.

For the most part, whether the dogs are from rescue or bought as pups, they’re lucky enough to live with responsible people who give them all the love and care they need. People who spoke to breeders and breed organisations before making an informed choice about the type of dog they can happily share their life with. But the park also shows me the other end of the dog-ownership spectrum; dogs that have been bought in haste, without proper research into their needs, and whose owners can’t or won’t cope with them.

One Husky I know is exercised in the tennis courts with the gate shut because that’s the only way her owner can let her off the lead without her running off. Not ideal, you might think, but then at least he’s trying to make sure she gets a good run. But the real problems start when he cycles through the park with her on a lead. She approaches other dogs and sniffs noses in what seems a friendly way before attacking them without warning. She’s done it to my own Billy the Whippet, who was just touching noses with her when she suddenly went for his neck. Her owner says sorry, she’s usually friendly with other dogs, but after speaking to other dog-owners on the park it’s clear that she isn’t. She does this a lot and her owner is neither coping well with her behaviour nor seeking help from a qualified behaviourist.

For me, this dog highlights the first and most crucial step in becoming a responsible dog owner: do your research before you make a commitment. I know a few people have reported the dog already and I’d hate to see her put to sleep because of her behaviour. But I can’t help thinking that at the very best she’ll end up in a rescue centre needing a very special type of new owner who can give her the training and exercise she needs. I hope she finds that owner.

Hope comes in the form of the rescuers – and especially the dogs themselves – who underline the importance of rehoming centres and of those people who give not just a home, but a whole new life to unwanted dogs. But with the number of dogs abandoned in the UK at an 11-year high, there’s a clear need not only for more people to offer a home to a dog, but also for more responsible dog-ownership so that fewer dogs are abandoned.

The Pedigree Adoption Drive seeks not only to raise funds vital to rescue centres, but also to spread the word about the importance of responsible dog ownership. Pedigree will donate £1 towards the £100,000 target every time you take Ripley for a walk across the web – just click on the Pedigree Adoption Drive logo.

You can also make a donation through the Pedigree Adoption Drive JustGiving page, or treat your favourite Fido with a gift from the Pedigree Adoption Drive eBay shop.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

The last walk: Murphy’s story

The 'last walk' theme of this year's Pedigree Adoption Drive brings to mind my first big dog, Murphy. Every day in the UK, some 20 stray and abandoned dogs take their last walk to be put to sleep because nobody wants them. Years ago, Murphy could easily have been one of those dogs.

Murphy was an indeterminate Irish Wolfhound crossbreed, very much like a large Labradoodle in looks and nature. I got Murphy from a friend who had ‘rescued’ him from a dogs’ home where he’d been staying because his previous owners had kept him chained up outside and obviously couldn’t cope with him. I suspect that he’d been an adorable fluffy puppy who quickly grew too big and boistrous for his owners. After seven days in the dogs’ home Murphy was due to be put to sleep, but my friend heard about him and took him on until he could find a suitable home for him.

Murphy was around six months old when he came to live with me. He was already a large dog and although he was very friendly and eager to please, it soon became clear that he hadn’t had much positive training. He pulled hard on the lead, chewed the skirting boards and, when visitors came round, he’d pee himself while cringing at the prospect of a telling-off.

I must admit that in those first few days I had some doubts about whether I could handle Murphy, but he was a very intelligent dog and quick to learn. He just needed to know what was expected of him, to be told a firm but friendly manner and to know that nobody was going to hit him. He got on really well with my other dog Zephyr, a Whippet who was choosy about the canine company he kept, and the three of us soon became inseparable.

All Murphy needed was to be given a chance to be a good dog, and that is what he became. He was soon wonderfully well behaved in the house and, once I directed his boundless energy into games so he didn’t run off after every other dog he saw, a great companion to take for walks. Zephyr died at the age of 12, and when I got a new Whippet puppy (the lovely Charlie) some months later, Murphy was the most tolerant and understanding playmate he could have wished for. By this time he was about ten years old.

Murphy loved his walks and he loved meeting people. When I walked him on the university campus at Reading, overseas students used to ask to have their photo taken with him because they missed the dogs they’d left at home. Murphy was always happy to oblige.

Later in life, Murphy developed arthritis and then Chronic Degenerative Radiculomyelopathy (CDRM). His walks became shorter but luckily his conditions didn’t advance far enough to stop him enjoying them and he always loved a game. He was such a good-natured dog who took everything in his stride, and he was on the best of terms with the vet.
So, some 13 years after he was due to be put to sleep at the dogs’ home, it was me who took Murphy for his last walk. He was about 14 years old then, and we’d only recently discovered that his kidneys were failing. I knew he didn’t have long, and on that last walk he let me know the time had come: ever keen for a ramble, this time he just wanted to go home. I slept on the floor with him that night and did my best to keep him comfortable. The next morning the vet came to the house. Murphy died peacefully, with his head on my lap.

Murphy was a great friend and he left a gigantic hole in my life. I know that anyone who had anything to do with him remembers him fondly. I'll never forget his sunny smile, his intelligence and his positive outlook. Eight years later I still miss Murphy, but I treasure the memories of those 13 years we had together. He gave me so much happiness and I'm so glad I was able to give him the long and happy life he deserved. I'm glad that, after years of brilliant walks together, he took his last walk with me.

There are many other dogs who, like Murphy, deserve a chance to take their last walk after a long and happy life, not after a spell in the rehoming kennels. That's why the Pedigree Adoption Drive is so important to me. You can help by taking Ripley, the Pedigree Adoption Drive dog, on a virtual walk around the Web. Pedigree will donate £1 towards their target of £100,000 every time you do. Just click on the picture (left) of Murphy enjoying a game among the dandelions with his Kong, and off you go!

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Diet pays off for Cassie the Collie

Earlier this year I was really upset to see images of Cassie, a Collie that was three times her normal weight.

So I’m delighted to read on The Sun website that, thanks to the dedication of staff at the Dogs Trust, Cassie has lost half her bodyweight in six months and she’s ready to go to her new home with a responsible owner.

Although Cassie’s story is an extreme example, it illustrates the growing problem of canine obesity and how easily things can get out of hand. The photos of Cassie before her weight loss are still distressing but at least she's much happier now, despite the classic Sun pun that 'Now she ain't nothing like a round dog'!

This week, the Pedigree Adoption Drive is raising money to help dogs like Cassie and to spread the word about responsible dog ownership. Please visit the site to find out more and take Ripley, the Pedigree Adoption Drive dog, for a virtual walk across the web – Pedigree will donate £1 towards their target of £100,000 every time you do!

Monday, 17 October 2011

Pedigree Adoption Drive: Let's walk!

This year’s Pedigree Adoption Drive is underway, and Ripley the dog is waiting for you to take part in the world’s first virtual dog walk.

Simply collect Ripley from her virtual kennel and take her for a walk around the web, and Pedigree will donate £1 towards its tail-wagging target of £100,000. The money will help provide much-needed funds for rescue centres across the UK, and the campaign will help educate anyone considering getting a dog about the responsibilities involved.

Meet Ripley
While she may be living in virtual kennels for the next week, Ripley is real dog with a story to tell. Ripley is a friendly, outgoing and inquisitive dog who now enjoys life as a professional stunt dog – you’ll soon be able to see her starring alongside Kirsten Stewart in the forthcoming film Snow White. But it wasn’t always that way. Ripley was abandoned in a terrible state, underweight and matted with mud. She had already had at least three homes by the time she was two years old. She arrived at Battersea Old Windsor as a stray, underweight and matted with mud.

Ripley was one of the lucky ones. Instead of taking her last walk, she won the heart of stunt dog expert Gill Raddings, who adopted her shortly after they first met. Now, as the face of PAD 2011, Ripley is doing her bit to help other dogs in need.

More than 20 stray and abandoned dogs being needlessly put down every day in the UK. By taking Ripley for a walk around the web you can help raise money so that instead of taking their ‘last walk’, those dogs can have the chance of a long and happy life.

Happy walking!

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Get ready for a virtual dog walk!

I’m delighted to be supporting this year’s Pedigree Adoption Drive, which starts on Monday 17 October.

More than 120,000 dogs were abandoned in the UK last year and every day, 20 of those dogs take their last walk to be put down because no home can be found for them.*

Since its launch, the Pedigree Adoption Drive has raised over £1 million for rescue centres across the country, helping them to find new and loving homes for abandoned dogs. Last year alone, grants of almost £250,000 were distributed to 34 rescue homes and went towards funding the vital refurbishment of dilapidated kennel blocks, desperately needed veterinary facilities and the supply of essential surgical equipment.

As regular HoundHeaders will know, dog-walking is a way of life for me, especially with two of my three dogs undergoing physiotherapy at the moment. So the theme of this year’s Pedigree Adoption Drive – the world’s first virtual dog walk around the web – really grabbed my attention.

All you need to do is collect Ripley (pictured above), the Pedigree Adoption Drive 2011 dog, from a virtual kennel next week and take her to visit four websites. Then Pedigree will donate £1 towards its target of £100,000.

I’ll be posting more information during the next week as well as hosting a virtual kennel where you can collect Ripley for her walk around the web. Don’t forget to check back on Monday 17 October for more details.

Happy walking!

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Dog-leg diary: A minor wobble

It was all going so well. Following his successful eight-week post-operative X-ray, Fargo was up to 25-minute walks as well as some other exercises. He was enjoying the fact that he was getting to see more of the park, albeit at a slow pace. Then he started limping again.

We think Fargo had probably tweaked his leg getting up or something. We had to be aware of the danger that he'd torn the cartilage in his knee, but it didn’t seem that way so we reduced his exercise and monitored the situation. So poor Fargs went back down to 10-minute walks pure and simple; no walking over poles or turning circles, just some more ice packs and then heat packs to make his knee feel better.

The good news is that it seems to have done the trick. Fargo's been to the physio a few times since the limping incident and his leg has steadily improved. Although the tweak has set him back a bit in his recovery, his walks have been extended first to 15 and then 20 minutes, and the poles and circles are back in. He’s been enjoying his weekly swim in the hydrotherapy pool and he seems perfectly happy on his operated leg now. Nice to see his fur growing back too!

In the meantime, Charlie’s gone from strength to strength. He swam for five minutes last Saturday and he’s now on 30-minute walks as well as walking over poles and turning anti-clockwise circles to strengthen his left side. He did seem a bit stiff one day a couple of weeks ago and I’m keeping an eye on him to see if that recurs on damp days. If so, it could be arthritis – he is almost 13 years old, after all. Of course, we haven’t had many damp days just lately so I haven’t really had chance to observe anything in that context yet.

It’s great to see that both Charlie and Fargo seem to really enjoy their swims. My attention wandered for a second the other day and when I looked round, Fargo was already up the ramp and about to get in the water! I had to stop him getting in until he was allowed. I don’t think Charlie would get in the pool of his own accord, but he does seem to enjoy the swim and he feels great afterwards. I can see that, once Fargo’s been given the all-clear, I’ll have to watch him whenever we go near a body of water.

As for me, my morning routine now consists of an hour’s walk for Billy, followed by half an hour for Charlie, and then 20 minutes for Fargo. In the evenings I might take Billy out with each of the other two, rather than running him on the park. It certainly keeps me fit and I now have unsurpassed knowledge of the various 10-minute, 15-minute, 20-minute and 30-minute walks from my house. It’s pretty time-consuming, but it’s also great to give the dogs that individual attention. And since the weather’s been so fine I really can’t think of much that I’d rather be doing.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

The One Show: Lessons learned?

In my last post on this subject, I wrote about my dismay at the BBC’s lack of responsibility in putting inexperienced dog trainer Jordan Shelley on The One Show in the alarmingly titled ‘Fix my Dog’ segment. Since then, things have moved on apace, with some heartening news regarding Jordan and yet more disappointment in the BBC’s attitude.

Last week, The One Show has dropped Jordan like a hot brick. On last Thursday’s show we saw a cut-and-paste ‘debate’ in which sensible things were said via a mix of VT and studio interviews that ensured none of the participants actually interacted with each other. Presenter Matt Baker told viewers that they should not have described Jordan Shelley as the show’s dog training expert, rather as somebody they were following. Then on Friday came the announcement that the show would not be continuing with its ‘Fix my Dog’ slot. The whole thing was made to look as if the presenters or scriptwriters were to blame for the whole fiasco, rather than a lack of professionalism, research and best practice on the part of the BBC.

Despite my dismay at his training techniques, I had to sympathise with Jordan. Whatever his failings, it’s obvious that he’s absolutely devoted to dogs and he wants to make a career of training them. Of course, devotion isn't enough to make a great dog trainer, and Jordan’s approach to dog training amply illustrated the maxim that ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’. But I can’t help feeling that the BBC let him down every bit as much as they did the rest of us.

If the BBC had acted with any responsibility, they would not have accepted Jordan as their dog expert – in fact, they might have advised him to get some qualifications and experience and then come back. But leaving that aside, once the complaints started pouring in, they would also have held up their hands and admitted that they were to a large extent responsible for what the viewers saw. It was the BBC that decided to make a star of Jordan; the BBC that didn’t think an experienced professional would be better qualified to give advice on dog training; the BBC that constantly denied there was anything wrong with the slot; and the BBC that then dropped their ‘star’ and moved on as if nothing had happened.

Meanwhile, just as his career seemed to be taking off in a spectacular way, Jordan suddenly found himself an object of hostility for many of the country’s dog owners. How awful it must have been to see that career on the brink of crumbling about his ears, almost as soon as it had begun. But it seems that for all his youth and inexperience, Jordan has responded to this difficult situation in a positive and mature way that puts the BBC to shame.

During all the comings and goings of what must have been a nightmare week for Jordan, Dogs Today editor Beverley Cuddy had asked on her ColdWetNose blog whether any dog trainers would like to show him how it’s done. Now, Jordan has called Beverley to say he’d like to take up any opportunities to learn more about the profession he clearly loves. He’s not bleating about all the negative criticism; he’s enthusiastic about the chance to learn from the experts.

What will become of Jordan Shelley remains to be seen, but his attitude says he’s got the tenacity and commitment – and soon, hopefully, the knowledge– to make a very good dog trainer one day. I admire his attitude and I wish him luck in his career. And if he does pop up on our screens again in a few years’ time, I hope the lessons he’s learned about working with the media will stand him in good stead too.

I also hope that the BBC are doing some serious thinking about their responsibilities, but I fear that may be too much to ask.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

The One Show: What a howler

There’s been a lot of talk about the new dog trainer on The One Show (BBC1). He’s a young, camera-friendly chap called Jordan Shelley and... erm... that seems to be all that was needed to qualify him to host a slot called ‘Fix my dog’ on the show.

The slot I saw from Friday’s show (16 September) was certainly alarming. From what I can make out, Shelley has no formal dog-training qualifications. He said on the show that he agrees with all approaches to dog training and that Cesar Millan is ‘an idol’ of his. Now, Millan can be a bit of a ‘Marmite’ issue in the World of Dog, although I don’t think it's necessarily as clear cut as all that. On Friday's show, Shelley said that he embraces a range of approaches to dog training, including those of Millan. But what he did told me something quite different.

Unfortunately, what I saw on The One Show was a clumsy adaptation of Millan’s methods by somebody who didn’t seem to have thought it through – exactly the sort of thing that viewers should be warned against. There was a lot of physical contact, mainly between Shelley’s foot and the mouth of Roxy, a Jack Russell Terrier who was aggressively guarding her food. And in the bedroom scene (where Roxy wasn't allowing anyone to approach her owner's bed) there was a lot of shouting at Roxy when it seemed to me that a firm, calm command might have done the trick. From what I saw, the dog seemed quite biddable in terms of going to its bed, waiting and staying when it was told to. I’m not a qualified dog trainer, but I can’t help wondering whether these and other commands could have been used to change the routine at feeding time and address Roxy’s guarding behaviour in a positive way. Was there really a reason to suggest to the TV audience that physical confrontation and intimidation was the best way to address this dog’s behaviour issues?

An issue of responsibility
What I find most alarming is the issue of responsibility which seems to have been cast aside in favour of a young, enthusiastic lad who, looks-wise, the TV audience can warm to. Let’s start with the title of the slot, ‘Fix my dog’. This suggests that the dog’s unwanted behaviour is not really anything to do with its owners, and is something that can be quickly put right by someone else. I know that from time to time any of us might find ourselves struggling with the behaviour of our dogs, and I have a great respect for expert dog trainers who work with dog-owners to help them resolve behavioural issues. Those trainers don’t 'fix' your dog for you; they work with you to help you to understand why your dog is behaving the way it is and what you need to do to improve your relationship and change that behaviour.

Moving past the title, if you’re going to produce an ‘expert’ on a TV show then surely it’s important to make sure that:
·        They are actually an expert, with the knowledge, experience and training that status suggests
·        The audience is warned not to try these methods themselves without consulting an expert like the one they’ve seen.

Neither of these were part of the One Show dog training experience. Shelley’s expertise seems to lie in having been 'good' with dogs in the past and having watched The Dog Whisperer. Whether through attitude or editing, he seemed simply to jump in and ‘correct’ Roxy’s behaviour - or rather to subdue it without investigating its causes. And when he was shoving his foot into the terrier’s mouth as she tried to guard her food, there was no warning to viewers not to try this at home.

If the BBC is intent on including this type of slot on The One Show, it really needs to consult with experienced professionals and establish best practice. I shudder at the thought of dog-owners across the country who, faced with a similar behavioural issue to Roxy's, start intimidating their dogs in this way, possibly encouraging fear reactions and other problems that can be just as harmful as  any perceived 'dominance aggression'.

Want to know more? The Cold Wet Nose blog by Dogs Today editor Beverley Cuddy includes a great discussion of Shelley’s training methods along with the BBC’s response to the complaints they’ve received.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Dog-leg diary: All cool in the pool

I feel that I’m truly becoming the queen of dog legs, with two of my three now receiving physio and hydrotherapy. Fargo’s session last week went well. He did three minutes in the pool but we kept his daily exercise routine the same until we’d had the results of his eight-week post-op X-ray.

Early on Wednesday 7th, I dropped Fargo off at the vets for his X-ray. It was a tense time because, although Fargo seemed to be doing well, a lot depended on how his bone was healing. I’m glad to report that it’s healing well and I was delighted to be told that the X-rays looked ‘lovely’, which means we can start to build up Fargo’s exercises a bit more now. Fargo didn’t appreciate being left at the vet’s this time around and he howled when he woke up from his anaesthetic, but at least that’s over now.

While Fargo might have disliked his trip to the vet’s, he’s definitely started to enjoy his hydrotherapy sessions. He was really looking forward to his swim this morning and he worked really hard. I think he might have been swimming for five minutes; certainly no less than four. He seems much more at home in the pool now and his kicking has improved too. At first he tended to try to kick out with both hind legs at the same time, but now he’s alternating them well. His fur has also turned out to be an impressive feature, as it dries out very quickly despite him being so woolly. It draws admiring comments from the physio, who wished all his clients had coats like that.

I took Charlie along to the physio last week too, and was advised to cut him down to two ten-minute walks per day, with stretching exercises for his back legs and left foreleg. The physio thought Charlie had a sore back as the result of using some legs to compensate for others. He told me to apply ice packs to his lower back twice a day for three days, after which I should change to heat packs. Whippets and cold things don’t go together well, so Charlie didn’t appreciate the first few days of treatment. However, he does quite like the heat pack and it seems to be working – Charlie’s been picking his foot up more on his short walks, and according to the physio his hind leg muscles have already firmed up a bit and his back seems better.

So today, Charlie had his first taste of the hydrotherapy pool and I have to say he made me very proud. I had been worried that he’d panic, but he took to it very well and I think he might even have enjoyed it – he seemed to be on a bit of a high afterwards, anyway. Watching Charlie move in the water it became really clear how he uses one leg more than the other, but I think I can also see how swimming will improve this in time.

We’re back for another physio session next Saturday. Until then, Charlie and Fargo are following slightly extended exercise regimes:

  • 2 x 25-minute walks per day; walk him in a clockwise circle every 5-10 minutes
  • 10 stretches to both hind legs, twice a day
  • Walking over poles set 15 inches apart, x 10, twice a day.

  • 2 x 15-minute walks per day
  • 10 stretches to both hind legs, twice a day
  • 10 each of two different stretches to left foreleg, twice a day
  • Heat pack to lower back for 10 minutes, twice a day.

And what does Billy Whippet think of all this? Well he’s been coming along to the sessions because I can’t leave him all on his own at home. He’s stopped whining all the way through the session, but he still starts up when one of the dogs is out of sight (i.e. in the pool). He’s becoming calmer about it though and he accepted a treat from the physio today – something he’d never do if he was too nervous or upset. In many ways, I wish that Billy could go in for a swim too, as I really think he’d enjoy it. I wonder if there’s a recreational dog swimming pool anywhere nearby.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Product review: Wagg Mobility Sticks

In the world of dog, treats are a valuable currency. My own three lads have been brought up on reward-based training and they’ll do anything for a tasty snack. With two mature fellas in my pack, I’m aware that their joints might need some added support, so we’ve recently been trying out Wagg Mobility Sticks, which are enriched with vitamins and minerals to help keep canine joints healthy. 

Regular HoundHead readers will know that I’m no stranger to joint problems in dogs. Charlie the Whippet is fast approaching his 13th birthday so I keep an eye on him for any signs of stiffness, especially since he had spinal surgery last year. Add Fargo the eight-year-old Labradoodle who’s just recovering from TPLO surgery after rupturing his cruciate ligament, and you can understand why I have a considerable interest in canine joint health.

Wagg Mobility Sticks are designed to be broken up easily, so you can use them as training treats or give your dog a bigger portion. They contain glucosamine and chondroitin to help support healthy joints – always a bonus where older dogs are concerned. The treats contain salmon and rice with no artificial colours, flavours or added sugar. And you get 120 grams of treats in a pack for about a quid. From my point of view, we were onto a winner with these.
Of course, the dogs don’t care about such details. It’s a fairly foregone conclusion that they’ll eat any treat, but they can surprise you with a sudden refusal. Underneath their general willingness to eat, they are actually connoisseurs and there are some ‘extra special’ treats that they’ll go crazy for. So what did they think of Wagg Mobility Sticks?

The first sign of success came when I opened the pack – as the unmistakable odour of salmon wafted out, Charlie’s ears pricked up and he swiftly manoeuvred himself across the room to land in his best-behaved ‘sit’ position at my feet, closely followed by Fargo and Billy the Whippet. As a healthy and active two-year-old, it could be argued that neither the exercises nor the treats were particularly at Billy, but try keeping him away.

I broke up the sticks to use as smaller treats – they’re described on the pack as ‘chunky’ and the reality didn’t let us down. The pieces were a good size for training and I think the chewy texture was well appreciated despite each piece being consumed in a split second.

In fact, all the dogs seemed suddenly keen as we ventured outside to do some treat-fuelled training exercises. Both Charlie and Fargo are seeing a physiotherapist at the moment, and they’re on restricted walks with some daily exercises to do, such as walking over poles to get them to stride properly. On the promise of these fishy treats, they were almost falling over themselves to walk over those poles and I had to add some heelwork to the exercise to bring some order to the proceedings. “No problem,” said the dogs, “Tell us what you want and we’ll do it – just give us the fishy treats!”

So, what’s the verdict? Based on taste and texture, Charlie, Fargo and Billy unanimously voted Wagg Mobility Sticks into the category of ‘extra special’ treats. Charlie gave me a look of pure horror as I put the bag away without emptying it into his mouth, and then spent some time willing me to give him just one more.

From a human point of view, the Wagg Mobility Sticks are an affordable way to treat the dogs. Every little helps, where their joints are concerned, so the glucosamine and chondroitin are welcome additions. Wagg also does a very reasonably priced range of complete dog food, including a senior diet that contains fish and fish oils as well as glucosamine and chondroin, and I’m now thinking of giving this a try.

* Especially with older dogs or those with mobility issues, it’s important to make sure they don’t put on too much weight as this can also harm their joints. It’s worth reducing the amount of food you feed at mealtimes to compensate for treats given during the day.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Dog-leg diary: stepping out

It’s been a while since I wrote an update about Fargo’s post-TPLO progress, and I’m glad to say he’s coming along well. He feels good and as the weather gets a little cooler he’s keen to run and jump about like a young-un. However, we are still in the early stages of recovery so it’s important that he doesn’t. Luckily, Fargo is very eager to please, so it’s fairly easy to divert his attention to other, less boisterous activities.

Fargo had his four-week post-op check-up with the vet, who was very pleased with his progress, and next week he’ll be going in for his eight-week x-ray to make sure everything’s going OK inside his leg. In the meantime, we’ve seen some exciting developments. 

The addition of three lovely chickens to our family caused a little bit of barking at first. Billy Whippet still likes to rush at them now and again (they’re safely enclosed so he can’t get at them), and they’re a little wary of him although not too worried. Charlie Whippet, who’s an older gentleman, isn’t really bothered about the chickens, and they’re happy to ignore him. But if those chickens are warming to any animal, it’s Fargo. He likes to stand by their enclosure and they’ve started to approach him slowly and say hello. I swear they’re going to touch noses/beaks soon.

I’ve gradually increased the length of Fargo’s walks to 20 minutes. This means that instead of walking round the corner and back we can actually GO TO THE PARK!!! We only get to walk slowly around a couple of trees before coming home, but Fargo’s absolutely delighted. He loves to say hello to dogs and people, and we generally find someone on the park who’s willing to give him some attention.

Fargo also had his first taste of hydrotherapy last weekend. He’s a dog that loves baths but hates any other type of water immersion, but he did two minutes in the pool and I think he’s on the way to enjoying it. We’ll find out this weekend, when he goes in for four minutes. I’m keen to carry on with hydrotherapy, not only to help build up Fargo’s muscles, but also because, while he’s not allowed to run, it’s great exercise for him. We’ve also got some new exercises to do – walking over poles to encourage Fargo to lengthen his stride. We do this twice a day and it seems to be making a difference. Fargo likes it because it’s like a training exercise, which means he gets treats.

Charlie and Billy decided to come out in sympathy a couple of weeks ago, but only in a minor way. Charlie started limping on his left front leg and Billy injured the dew claw on his left front. He does some hard cornering when he’s chasing his toy on the park and he’d managed to tear it somehow. There was lots of blood but the injury itself wasn’t too bad, so after a couple of days rest (complete rest for Charlie, lead-walking only for Billy), they were back to normal.

Since his spinal surgery last year, Charlie’s front left leg has been weaker than the others, and his hind legs aren’t all they used to be. He came to the physio with us last weekend and we agreed to see if there’s anything we can do to strengthen his muscles. It could be a neurological issue, which would mean that his nerves aren’t communicating with his muscles well enough and there’s not much we can do about that. But it could be that Charlie’s lost some muscle tone by compensating for his weaker legs, and in that case we might be able to build up his strength a bit. Whatever happens, it’s worth a try.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Fair news and fowl

Aside from making sure Fargo recovers OK from his knee operation (see ‘Dog-leg diary’ entries in this blog), we’ve had some pretty exciting times around here lately.

First, there’s the kind of excitement that none of us needs, as last night Leicester fell prey to the idiotic violence, vandalism and looting that’s been sweeping the country. I’m utterly dismayed by it, but I’m not going to dwell on it here except to say look after each other, including your animals.

On a happier note, my September issue of Dogs Monthly magazine arrived last week, containing my feature about Charlie’s recovery from spinal surgery last year! This issue includes articles about older dogs and a breed profile of Whippets, so Charlie fits in perfectly there, being both an older gentleman and a member of that lovely breed. Charlie’s story is my first feature in a major monthly dog magazine, although I do also write features for Pet Friendly’s quarterly Out & About magazine. I really want to write more about dogs and, although I know there’s a lot of competition out there, I hope to get many more features into the dog press in the future.

Billy saying hello to the bravest hen
Last Saturday, we added three lovely hens to our family. They’re all different types – a Crested hen, a Copper Black, and a Coucou – and we haven’t managed to name them yet. Charlie, Billy and Fargo are still getting used to them, but they’ve been fairly good so far. Charlie and Fargo tend to ignore the chickens a lot, but then sometimes they’ll stare at them and consider a bark. Billy is by nature a bird-chaser. It’s been a pleasant surprise to see that, a lot of the time, he shows a keen but calm interest in the chickens. However, he also likes to chase around their enclosure sometimes, so I have to watch him when he goes out. The good news is that he doesn’t tend to bark at them, and if you tell him to move away from the enclosure he’ll generally go and find something else to look at in the garden.

The hens haven’t laid any eggs yet but they seem quite happy. I’ve been into their enclosure over the past few days with a handful of corn and they’re gradually coming closer to me. I haven’t got them to eat out of my hand yet, but the Crested one (she’s the bravest) took some grains off the toe of my boot just now and I know she was eying up my handful of grain, even though she didn’t go for it.

So what with writing, Fargo's rehabilitation and getting to know hens, things are quite busy here at the moment. I'll be back with another Dog-leg diary after Fargo's check-up at the vets. Until then, stay safe.